The scene was sublime. The occasion was, occasionally, ridiculous. It was at Maroon Lake, a kind of reflecting pool for the twin peaks of the mountains known as the Maroon Bells and known to millions through one of Ansel Adams' most famous photographs. The hills were alive with the sound of children in pursuit of the elusive rainbow trout.
The Will boys, now 9 and 7, caught their first fish (bluegills) a few years ago at Eric Sevareid's pond in rural Virginia. They caught them the way first fish ought to be caught, with bamboo poles and worms. But as Eric, a passionate fisherman, would be the first to insist, there are fish and then there are trout; and there is fishing and then there is fishing with flies. A mature rainbow, dancing on its tail on the surface of the water to express the prejudice of its species agains hooks in the mouth, is an almost perfect embodiment of the components of life: earth, air, fire and water.
The Will boys were across the lake when my soul mate from Denver, Michael Shaffer, 6, made his first cast of the morning and instantly hooked something big. From Michael's father came, instantly, four carefully measured but heartfelt words--a plea, not advice--"DON'T REEL IT IN!" The "it" was Michael's father, in whose thigh the fly was implanted.
Michael's father has a lawyer's job but a mountain man's soul, so he fished all morning with the fly in his thigh. Then we made our regular stop at one of Aspen's laid-back doctors, who removed part of the hook and suggested that Michael's father think of the rest of the hook as shrapnel.
Fishing with children is more dangerous to parents than to fish, but there is a bigger danger. It is that too many people will reach adulthood without experiencing the instruction of time spent with nature. Such time is important to the development of something without which we cannot live well: piety.
"Piety," says James M. Gustafson of the University of Chicago Divinity School, "is a fundamental stance toward what is given in the world and human life: it is an attitude or disposition of respect, awe and even devotion that is evoked by human experience of dependence on powers we do not create and cannot fully master." By piety, Gustafson means neither plousness (pretentious display of religiosity) nor pietism (the religious movement that strives to engender a high pitch of emotion) nor the "fleeting emotions evoked by the glory of a sunset over New Mexican mesas." Rather, he means "a profound sense fo dependence that comes with the recognition that, for all our human achievements, that world was brought into being by powers long before the emergence of our species; that the continuation of life relies upon powers that are not fully in human control; and that the destiny of the universe is not in human hands."
Most of us, most of the time, lead lives that narrow our minds to a small gauge appropriate to our daily purposes. But, mysteriously, it is somehow enlarging to focus all one's being on the task of tricking a trout into striking a tiny bit of metal and feather and thread.
Fishing is a way of turning one's back on "the world"--that being, as Charles Dickens said, "a conventional phrase which signifieth all the rascals in it." Fishing in the shadow of great mountains and in running water is a sweet reminder that man is but a shadow and nations are but bubbles on the river of time. Fishing for trout in clear water is among life's most frustrating experiences. You can see your fly, and can see trout following your fly and disdainfully curling their lips at it.
Fishing is especially good for the unformed souls of children, who are never too young to learn what trout-fishing teaches, the lesson that there is generally a considerable gap between one's inclinations and the world's willingness to see them realized. Trout are much like children: they are often willful, capricious and maddeningly disinclined to eat what is put in front of them.